Oh, that Jill. she has a special talent for making customers feel all warm and cozy. With her in-depth knowledge, thoughtful questions and almost uncanny ability to predict what kind of laptop a shopper will want, Jill, a service representative on cozone.com Inc.’s e-commerce site, often gets the undying gratitude of online customers tied up like a pink valentine.
In fact, recently Jill received this customer love note:
Your overview about notebooks is AWESOME. I realized over the holidays that I need to buy a new notebook, but felt overwhelmed at the task. Your notes give me confidence that I can figure out and find what I need. Thanks!”
You’d think all this praise would be enough to make Jill blush. And it probably would if Jill were human. But she’s not. Jill is a virtual shopping assistant.
Her face does happen to belong to a member of cozone.com’s ad agency, but that is as lifelike as Jill gets. Behind the pretty face is actually a heady stew of predictive modeling, demographic and psychographic statistics, and Bayesian pattern recognition algorithms.
All the number-crunching of ones and zeros add up to Jill being smart enough to act like any small-town salesperson who would get to know her customers and offer them recommendations. It may be cold statistics churning behind that smile, but the only thing that the online customer experiences is Jill in her get-to-know- you mode as she asks questions such as, “Do you travel a lot?” or, “Will a child be using this computer?” It all adds up to Jill coming across as, well, a Web site visitor’s best friend.
That may seem like a touchy-feely goal for online transactions. But establishing that kind of deep connection with customers is exactly what many next-generation e-businesses are after. The problem is that it has been difficult to establish a level of trust between a consumer or business partner when all they have to relate to is a Web site built on CRM (customer relationship management) applications that flip through cold, hard data in the background. To humanize the interaction, enterprises are giving their Web sites face lifts-or more accurately, face consolidations.
The Jill persona is just the tip of the iceberg. Behind that bright, friendly image, savvy e-businesses are integrating customer information stored in CRM and ERP (enterprise resource planning) back-end applications. But building a Web site with personality isn’t easy. It requires stitching together multiple tools such as Silknet Software Inc.’s Trusted Advisor-the technology behind Jill-as well as intelligent search engines, e- mail management, Web chat and call-back buttons to give the site its own charm. Because there is no one software suite that does it all, it usually falls to the IT department to write the code that brings it together.
And as companies such as Sun Microsystems Inc., DaimlerChrysler Corp., Proflowers.com and Porsche Cars of North America Inc. work on creating a single corporate identity for customers and partners to relate to, they’re running into another challenge: persuading division managers-who are sometimes reluctant to relinquish control of customer information-to buy in to the idea.
Ultimately, however, creating a friendly corporate persona on the front end and pooling data on the back end means customers avoid having to deal with a corporation’s separate business divisions, which can all have distinct Web personalities, log-ins and passwords. They get more self-serve options and quicker answers, and e-businesses get tighter customer relationships and lower support costs.
Experts say it’s crucial for businesses to determine what technology is needed to put those relationships together now, before competition eats their lunch. “I do believe that although we’re on the leading edge now, and [some of this technology] is rudimentary, a year from now things will be significantly different,” said Peggy Menconi, an analyst with AMR Research Inc., in Boston. “Personalization will be past making the screen look the way you want it to. You’ll see more and more of these virtual assistants.”
Some companies, such as DaimlerChrysler, are working toward such intimate customer relationships. The company is installing online technologies based on Ask Jeeves, Ask Jeeves Inc.’s natural language search technology. The tool will be customized into a corporate persona similar to Dell Computer Corp.’s “Ask Dudley,” which allows users to type technical service and support questions in using plain English to receive instant answers.
It’s all about creating a customer relationship based on trust. “It’s a relationship with the Web,” said AMR’s Menconi. “It doesn’t surprise me that [Jill] gets mail. Rather than being a cold search engine where you put in Boolean logic, she asks questions a real person would ask you.”
Just another pretty, virtual face?
Proflowers.com, an online florist, is now in the process of evaluating Silknet’s Trusted Advisor-a set of technologies and services that can be used to produce a virtual online persona. Jonathan Sills, vice president of strategy and product development at Proflowers.com, in San Diego, said a virtual salesperson makes sense, particularly in the flower business, where a purchase isn’t just a transaction-it’s an intimate experience. “We ship an emotion, not a flower,” Sills said. “Every element of our customer experience should reflect that touchy-feeliness.”
A key part of creating a Web site with personality is doing the research it takes to imbue virtual sales personas with the kind of expertise that will keep customers coming back. An example of that research is Silknet’s Trusted Advisor division’s visits to CompUSA Inc.’s stores, where researchers eavesdropped on exchanges among experienced salespeople and customers. The result was Jill, a persona they developed specifically for cozone, which is CompUSA’s Internet spinoff. For Proflowers.com, the research will involve visiting florists to do similar research.
Based on technology developed through research at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, Trusted Advisor uses mathematical curves that assign value to shopper responses, such as whether the site visitor has children and how the visitor self-ranks his or her knowledge. An online persona-aka “bot”-such as Jill then presents products tailored to a customer’s needs, along with third-party reviews and articles.
So do sites with these personas actually manage to sell all that much more than a straight configurator or search engine-enabled site? Jill’s creators say yes.
“We’ve seen healthy conversion rates” in converting browsers to buyers, said David Fowler, vice president of marketing for Silknet. “It’s doubled in Version 2.2 of Jill.”
But comprehensive, next-generation CRM has been a tough row to hoe for many companies. Despite the current consolidation trend among CRM vendors seeking to gain more product functionality, no CRM suite today can deliver both the front-end virtual persona and integrated customer information on the back end.
“There really is a lot of concern about whether you go with a point solution that manages one aspect of CRM, such as something that deals with e-mail management really well, or do you go with one that covers the whole spectrum,” said Proflowers.com’s Sills. “I haven’t seen one out there that can do everything we need to do with customer relationships at the same level of proficiency as the point solutions.”
That’s meant that Proflowers.com has had to write custom code to tie together its CRM environment, which includes Kana Communications Inc.’s Kana Customer Messaging System e-mail management tool as well as LivePerson Inc. technology, which enables “call me now” requests to be typed online alerting a company representative to phone the customer back (see story, below).
Proflowers.com also uses Personify Inc.’s Personify Essentials, a system that links visitor or behavioral data with tracked customer data, such as items purchased, amount of purchase, length of time since previous purchase and items viewed.
Tinkering with the n-tier
At DaimlerChrysler, getting cozy with customers has meant that Mike Mortan, senior manager of interactive communications, has had to get his hands dirty tinkering with every application to retrofit them into state-of-the-art n-tier architecture, a setup that allows Web site user interfaces to be changed without having to fiddle with a long string of code.
Standard site architectures have coding all the way down into the database; when one word in the interface is changed, the code has to be reworked back to the database. N-tier architecture separates codes into levels, each of which can be modified separately. What this means, Mortan said, is content can be changed quicker and is therefore more nimble at responding to customer needs.
The outcome of the tinkering will be a Web site that will not only greet visitors by name but will get downright chummy, asking, for example, “Hey, how’s your Jeep running? You know, you’re due for a tuneup. You want me to set up an appointment now?” Mortan said this ability to schedule service online will be launched later this year, even though it’s not something customers want yet-but Mortan says they soon will.
“As we know, things change quickly on the Web,” pointed out Mortan, in Auburn Hills, Mich. “As we move to the future, a big part of personalizing customer experience on the Web will be knowing [customers] well and knowing when they’ll be ready to shop again, plus their buying habits and shopping and lifestyle preferences. We’ll be able to push to a consumer relevant info they’re interested in, as opposed to making a Web site that’s meant for the masses.”
DaimlerChrysler is also plugging in the friendliness fix of a natural language search engine. The company’s Ask Chrysler is a tool that’s based on Ask Jeeves’ Ask Jeeves Corporate Service. Why not just put in a simple search engine? They just don’t have any personality, Mortan said.
“This [involved] humans sitting down and looking at the Web site as a potential consumer and really writing answers and pointing the questions to the actual Web site where the answer would be found,” Mortan said. “[Where] other products use fuzzy logic to do that … we wanted the ability to sit down as if you had another person on the other end of that scene and open up dialogue through natural language.”
A virtual foot in a virtual mouth
Despite the lure of this type of customer self-service, e- businesses should be aware that they can easily backfire and blow up the site’s credibility. That’s because such transactions require data in ERP and CRM systems to be available so that online visitors actually touch the data in enterprises’ back ends. Unfortunately, many businesses aren’t at liberty to tweak long-standing back-end systems at will.
That’s the case at Porsche Cars North America, which is piloting a relational vehicle/customer database that would provide transparency from a browser into the AS/400 back end to access information such as a car’s service history and a customer’s lifestyle, including how many vehicles a customer has and even how many children.
What hamstrings an effort like that is that the legacy systems- including the half-dozen databases through which information flows sluggishly-can’t be changed, since they’ve been adopted by Dr. Ing. h. c. F. Porsche AG as worldwide standards, according to John Jacobs, manager of Porsche Cars North America’s dealer and field systems, in Atlanta.
“There’s a lot of one-to-one relationship marketing aspects we can leverage with a CRM initiative,” Jacobs said. “[For example,] we could provide service reminders, [set up] service appointments. … [But] we can’t touch that legacy code and modify it for our own use because it upsets the apple cart for the international implementation.”
To get that information to flow more freely, at least for dealers, Porsche has licensed Jacada Ltd.’s Jacada for Java, a tool that applies graphical interfaces to huge databases of information and ERP applications, eliminating the need to rewrite code or move data off the mainframes.
But even after businesses figure out how to hook up legacy systems for next-generation CRM, they still have to make sure their back-end data is squeaky clean, experts say. After all, even Jill gets the occasional less-than-charming e-mail, such as one from a customer who found her technical knowledge lacking. “Several things can make [these personas] annoying,” AMR’s Menconi said. “[Companies] put up bad info, or they don’t update it, so they have old info that’s no longer relevant.”
A company such as Sun knows all about exposing its problems publicly. Like many large companies, Sun initially lurched onto the Web with all its divisions dangling. Fixing that situation so that customers could access one Sun and get what they need without getting shunted from division to division is the reason that Sun created its eSun initiative a year ago.
Uniting disparate divisions will spare Sun’s customers pain and save the company money. For example, an order status check costs about $20 when a customer calls Sun, but just pennies when done by a customer online, according to Bobbi Burns, director of Web commerce at Sun. First, however, Burns had to be able to present customers with information from multiple back-end systems. And that meant she had to fight to get divisions’ upper management to let go of their online fiefdoms. “It was a nightmare,” said Burns, in Chelmsford, Mass. “We were asking divisions that were traditionally very independent and used to making their own choices to do something new. It’s perceived as a threat and a taking away of power.”
It took the eSun initiative six months, even with upper management’s support, to get buy-in to the new deal. Now the challenge is to present Jill-style customer recognition in the world of business-to-business, which is far more complex than business-to-consumer relationships.
For example, presenting customized product catalogs so that customers don’t buy products that would be incompatible with their networks can involve five levels of employee access and buying authority. A service contract may be relevant only to a subset at a company, and information may be off-limits to some employees.
“Having multiple customer management systems gets difficult,” Burns admitted. “We have to make sure we can tie systems together with common identifiers and not have to replace them all at once.”
So why go through the angst? Because customers won’t be putting up with online enterprise schizophrenia much longer. “Our customers know what they want and don’t want to spend time calling someone,” Burns said. “They want access right away … and they want to work with one Sun.”
So where should businesses start to give their online personalities some charm? AMR’s Menconi said the first thing to do is to look at a site from the customer’s point of view and design CRM features accordingly. That means letting customers do whatever they want to do quickly and easily-forget the sticky site syndrome; get them out quickly and only upsell subtlely.
Next, make sure you clean up before you open up. Dirty data is just an embarrassment. Last, don’t wait, because “there’s too much at stake,” Menconi said.
After all, you don’t want to catch Jill winning the hearts of customers on a competitor’s site.
Don’t let them drop before they shop
Consumers want self-service on e-commerce sites that allow them to complete as much as they can, as fast as they can. But businesses have to stitch together a crazy quilt of applications to cover all their visitors’ needs, since no one suite offers all the coddling required for a good customer relationship. Here are some of the functions that will satisfy CRM needs:
Research products: There are many solutions to choose from, but some businesses are using natural-language technology to make sure Internet newbies don’t get scared off by Boolean logic. *(products include: Ask Jeeves, Edify and iPlanet)
Create order: Let customers view products before dumping them in shopping carts, or your site will be littered with abandoned carts. *(products include: Calico, FirePond and Trilogy)
Search solutions: Smart technology takes note of what a visitor is researching and will then use predictive modeling to determine what they might buy. *(products include: Ventix, Silknet and Inference)
Check order status: Link-ups to delivery channels such as FedEx are de rigueur.
Dispatch engineers: The ability to call for service help online is rare but will soon be a must-have feature.
Online buddies vs. big brothers
The Catch-22 in today’s e-economy is that on one hand, to build a deep and lasting relationship with customers or partners, you need to know as much about them as possible. On the other hand, many people are fed up with their personal information being bandied about, since it often results in an e-mail box full of spam. Here is what e-businesses need to collect and analyze to turn the Web site into a visitor’s trusted assistant:
Basic profile. Name, e-mail address, billing and shipping addresses, phone number(s), whether they’re part of a household (for business-to-consumer interactions) or employees of a business (for business-to-business).
Preferred method of communicating. Do visitors prefer communicating via phone, e-mail, Web chat or face to face? Do they prefer different channels at different points in their transactions?
Quality of interactions. If Web site visitors are going away frustrated, you better know about it, and you also better know when and why it’s happening in a transaction.